Vladimir Putin says civilians must be evacuated from Kherson war zone

Russia digs in in preparation for expected attempt by Ukraine to take key southern city, setting scene for possible ferocious battle

Vladimir Putin has warned that civilians still living in the Ukrainian province of Kherson, which Russia declared in September it had annexed, must be “evacuated” from the conflict zone.

“Now, of course, those who live in Kherson should be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions, because the civilian population should not suffer,” the Russian president said during a meeting with pro-Kremlin activists.

The comments underlined mounting speculation that Russia would attempt to hold the city of Kherson itself, the largest urban area under Russian occupation, at any cost.

Pro-Russian occupation authorities briefly announced a 24-hour curfew in the city amid suggestions that Russian forces may be preparing to abandon the west bank of the Dnieper River, before rapidly backtracking.

As Ukrainian forces have closed in, Russia has moved in reinforcements and dug into positions against an expected effort by Ukraine to try to take the key city, setting the scene for a potentially ferocious battle.

While Russia has transported 60,000 residents of the Kherson region away from the frontlines, others have remained, determined to stay in their homes. The Russian army said “more than 5,000 civilians” were being transported across the Dnieper every day, showing footage of soldiers directing lines of cars on to flotillas crossing to the eastern bank.

Initially announcing the round-the-clock curfew, the Russian-installed deputy governor of the region, Kirill Stremousov, said it was necessary “in order to defend our city” from what he referred to as “terrorist attacks” – a sign that Russia believes an assault on the city may be imminent.

A short time later, however, Stremousov issued a second video retracting the initial statement. “In the city of Kherson there are absolutely no restrictions that would limit the life of the city,” he said on Telegram.

Kyiv has likened the departures to Soviet-style “deportations” of its people.

Ukraine has liberated a large area of Kherson oblast, but progress has slowed in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces have approached the Dnieper.

On Thursday, Stremousov issued several video appeals for civilians to leave the part of the province on the west bank of the Dnieper. He said Russian forces would likely soon give up the west bank of the river to Ukraine.

Authorities removed the Russian flag from the Kherson administration building on the west bank on Thursday, a week after the regional government moved out.

Ukraine’s southern military spokeswoman, Natalia Humeniuk, said the flag’s removal could be a ruse “and we should not hurry to rejoice”, adding that some Russian military personnel appeared to have disguised themselves as civilians.

Russia’s battlefield setbacks since the end of the summer, both in Kherson and in the eastern Donbas region, have led to the call-up of 300,000 additional people in a large-scale “partial mobilisation” as Moscow has targeted key Ukrainian infrastructure – including its energy networks.

In his nightly address on Thursday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said about 4.5 million people were without electricity across the country.

Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said 450,000 apartments in the capital alone did not have power on Friday. “I appeal to all residents of the capital: save electricity as much as possible, because the situation remains difficult!” he wrote on Telegram. The state-owned grid operator, Ukrenergo, reported on Friday that emergency blackouts would be taking place across Kyiv.

Russia has carried out missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian power facilities, particularly in recent weeks. In his address, Zelenskiy described the targeting of energy infrastructure as a sign of weakness.

“The very fact that Russia is resorting to energy terrorism shows the weakness of our enemy,” he said. “They cannot beat Ukraine on the battlefield, so they try to break our people this way.”

Elsewhere, Ukrainian officials reported shooting down drones launched by Russian forces. The governor of Dnipropetrovsk, Valentyn Reznichenko, said eight drones had been shot down in the Nikopol area, which was also subjected to artillery shelling. Another drone was shot down over the western Lviv region, the governor, Maksym Kozytskyy, said.

In a much-scrutinised meeting on Friday with the visiting German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, called for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine and warned against the conflict going nuclear.

The German leader is in Beijing for a one-day visit that has drawn criticism over China’s tacit support for Russia, lingering controversies over economic ties and human rights issues. It comes after Xi further cemented his authoritarian rule at a major Communist party congress last month.

Scholz’s visit reflects the importance of Germany’s trade ties with China, the world’s second largest economy, particularly in the auto and manufacturing sectors. Mercedes Benz alone sold 758,863 cars in China last year, more than in any other country, according to company figures.

Scholz, who is travelling with several German business leaders, received a formal welcome from Xi – who was recently reappointed head of the ruling Communist party for a third term – at the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing.

“At present, the international situation is complex and changeable,” Xi was quoted as telling Scholz by the state broadcaster CCTV. “As influential powers, China and Germany should work together in times of change and chaos to make more contributions to world peace and development.”

On Ukraine, Xi “pointed out that China supports Germany and the EU in playing an important role in promoting peace talks and promoting the building of a balanced, effective and sustainable European security framework”, CCTV reported.

The international community should “create conditions for the resumption of negotiations [and] jointly oppose the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons”, Xi said.


Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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